E-text prepared by Al Haines
"Bartimeus" is the pseudonym of Captain Lewis Anselm da Costa Ritchie, R.N.
THE LONG TRICK
Author of "A Tall Ship," "Naval Occasions," etc.
"Much of what you have done, as far as the public eye is concerned, may almost be said to have been done in the twilight."—Extract from address delivered by the Prime Minister on board the Fleet Flagship, Aug., 1915.
Cassell and Company, Ltd London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne
First Published. October 1917. Reprinted (Twice) October 1917, November 1917.
TO one CHUNKS Who, in moments of frenzy, is called HUNKS and answers readily to TUNKS, TINKS or TONKS, This Book is INSCRIBED
DEAR N AND M,
This is the first opportunity I have had of answering your letter, although I am hardly to blame since you chose to write anonymously and leave me with no better clue to your address than the Tunbridge Wells postmark.
Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I am sorry about Torps, though. I admit his death was a mistake, and I fancy my Publisher thought so too: but we cannot very well bring him to life again, like Sherlock Holmes. So please cheer up, and remember that there are just as many fine fellows in the ink-pot as ever came out of it.
I have borne in mind the final paragraph of your letter, which said, "We do beseech you not to kill the India-rubber Man." In fact, I originally meant him to be the hero of this book. But as the book progressed I found the melancholy conviction growing on me that the India-rubber Man had become infernally dull. A pair of cynical bachelors like you will, I know, attribute this to marriage and poor Betty. For my part I am inclined to put it down to advancing years.
I have just finished the book, and, turning over the pages, found myself wondering how you will like it. It has been written in so many different moods and places and noises and temperatures that the general effect is rather patchwork. But, after all, it was written chiefly for the amusement of two people, and (as I believe all story-books ought to be written) out of some curiosity on the Author's part to know "what happened next."
Thus, you see, I strive to disarm all critics at the outset by the assumption of an ingenuous indifference to anything they can say. But there is one portion of the book on which I have expended so much thought and care that I am willing to defy criticism on the subject. I refer to the Dedication.
You probably skip Dedications, but they interest me, and I have studied them a good deal. They are generally arranged in columns like untidy addition sums, and no two lines are the same length. This is very important. At the end you arrive, as it were by a series of stepping-stones, at the climax. And there you are.
No. Let the critics say what they will about the book: but I hold that the Dedication is It.
1. BACK FROM THE LAND 2. THE "NAVY SPECIAL" 3. ULTIMA THULE 4. WAR BABIES 5. UNCLE BILL 6. WET BOBS 7. CARRYING ON 8. "ARMA VIRUMQUE..." 9. "SWEETHEARTS AND WIVES" 10. THE BATTLE OF THE MIST 11. THE AFTERMATH 12. "GOOD HUNTING" 13. SPELL-O! 14. INTO THE WAY OF PEACE
The Chapters headed "Wet Bobs" and "Carrying On" appeared originally in Blackwood's Magazine and are included in the book by kind permission of the Editor.
THE LONG TRICK
BACK FROM THE LAND
Towards eight o'clock the fog that had hung threateningly over the City all the afternoon descended like a pall.
It was a mild evening in February, and inside the huge echoing vault of King's Cross station the shaded arc lamps threw little pools of light along the departure platform where the Highland Express stood. The blinds of the carriage windows were already drawn, but here and there a circle of subdued light strayed out and was engulfed almost at once by the murky darkness. Sounds out of the unseen reached the ear muffled and confused: a motor horn hooted near the entrance, and quite close at hand a horse's hoofs clattered and rang on the cobbled paving-stones. The persistent hiss of escaping steam at the far end of the station seemed to fill the air until it was presently drowned by the ear-piercing screech of an engine: high up in the darkness ahead one of a bright cluster of red lights holding their own against the fog, changed to green. The whistle stopped abruptly, and the voice of a boy, passing along the crowded platform, claimed all Sound for its own.
"Chor-or-or-clicks!" he cried in a not unmusical jodelling treble, "Chorclicks!—Cigarettes!"
The platform was thronged by bluejackets and marines, for on this particular evening the period of leave, granted by some battleship in the North, had expired. They streamed out of refreshment rooms and entrance halls, their faces lit for a moment as they passed under successive arc lights, crowding round the carriage doors where their friends and relations gathered in leave-taking. Most of them carried little bundles tied up in black silk handkerchiefs and paper parcels whose elusive contents usually appeared to take a leguminous form, and something of the traditional romance of their calling came with them out of the blackness of that February night. It was reflected in the upturned admiring faces of their women-folk, and acknowledged by some of the younger men themselves, with the adoption of an air of studied recklessness.
Some wore the head-gear of enraptured civilian acquaintances and sang in undertones of unrequited love. Others stopped in one of the friendly circles of light to pass round bottled beer, until an elderly female, bearing tracts, scattered them into the shadows. They left her standing, slightly bewildered, with the empty bottle in her hands. She had the air, for all the world, of a member of the audience suddenly abandoned on a conjurer's stage.
In the shelter of one of the great pillars that rose up into the darkness a bearded light o' love stopped and emptied his pockets of their silver and coppers into the hands of the human derelict that had been his companion through the past week. "'Ere you are, Sally," he said, "take what's left. You ain't 'arf been a bad ole sort, mate," and kissed her and turned away as she slipped back into the night where she belonged.
Farther along in the crowd an Ordinary Seaman, tall and debonair and sleek of hair, bade osculatory farewell to a mother, an aunt, a fiancee and two sisters.
"'Ere," finally interrupted his chum, "'ere, Alf, where do I come in?"
"You carry on an' kiss Auntie," replied his friend, and applied himself to his fiancee's pretty upturned mouth. This the chum promptly did, following up the coup, amid hysterical laughter and face-slapping, by swiftly embracing the mother and sisters.
"You sailors!" said the friend's mother delightedly, straightening her hat.
"Don Jewans, all of 'em," confirmed the aunt, recovering the power of speech of which a temporary displacement of false teeth had robbed her. "Glad there wasn't no sailors down our way when I was a girl, or I shouldn't be 'ere now." A sally greeted by renewed merriment.
Indifferent to the laughter and horse-play near them a grave-faced Petty Officer stood by the door of his carriage saying good-bye to his wife and children before returning to another nine months' exile. A little boy in a sailor-suit clung to the woman's skirt and gazed admiringly into the face of the man he had been taught to call "Daddie"—the jovial visitor who came to stay with them for a week once a year or so, after whose departure his mother always cried so bitterly, writer of the letters she pressed against her cheek and locked away in the yellow tin box under the bed....
She held another child in her arms—a wide-eyed mite that stared up into the murk overhead with preternatural solemnity. Their talk, of an inarticulate simplicity, is no concern of ours. The little group has been recorded because of the woman. Mechanically rocking the child in her arms, with her neat clothes and brave little bits of finery, with, above all, her anxious, pathetic smile as she looked up into the face of her man, she stood there for a symbol of all that the warring Navy demands of its women-folk.
Beyond them, where the first-class carriages and sleeping saloons began, the platform became quieter and less crowded. Several Naval and one or two Military officers walked to and fro, or stood at the doors of their compartments superintending the stowage of their luggage; a little way back from the light thrown from the carriage windows, two figures, a man and a girl, stood talking in low voices.
Presently the man stepped under one of the overhanging lamps and consulted his wristwatch. The light of the arc-lamp, falling on the shoulder-straps of his uniform great-coat, indicated his rank, which was that of Lieutenant-Commander.
"We've got five minutes more," he said.
The girl nodded.
"I know. I've been ticking off the minutes for the last week—in my head, I mean." She smiled, a rather wan little smile. Her companion slipped his arm inside hers, and together they walked towards the train.
"Come and look at my cabin, Betty, and—let's see everything's there."
He helped her into the corridor, and, following, encountered the uniformed attendant. The man held a notebook in his hand.
"Are you Mr. Standish, sir?" he inquired, consulting his notebook.
"That's my name as a rule," was the reply. "At the moment though, it's Mud—spelt M-U-D. Which is my abode?"
"This way, sir." The attendant led the way along the corridor and pushed open the door of the narrow sleeping compartment. "Here you are, sir." He eyed the officer's companion with a professionally reassuring air, as much as to say, "He'll be all right in there, don't you worry." It certainly looked very snug and comfortable with the shaded light above the neat bunk and dark upholstery.
"Ah," said the traveller, "we just wanted to—er—see everything was all right."
"Quite so, sir. Plenty of time—lady not travelling, I presume? I'll come along when we're due to start and let you know." He closed the door with unobtrusive tact.
The lady in question surveyed the apartment with the tender scrutiny of a mother about to relinquish her offspring to the rough usage of an unfamiliar world.
"Bunje, darling," she said, and bent and brushed the pillow with her lips. "That's so that you'll sleep tight and not let the bogies bite." She smiled into her husband's eyes rather tremulously. "And take care of yourself as hard as ever you can. Remember your leg and your poor old head." His cap lay on the bunk, and she raised a slender forefinger to trace the outline of the shiny scar above his temple. "I've mended you so nicely."
"I'll take care of myself all right, and you won't cry, will you, Betty, when I've gone? Promise—say: 'Sure-as-I'm-standing-here-I-won't-cry,' or I'll call the guard!"
"I—I can't promise not to cry a tiny bit," faltered Betty, "but I promise to try not to cry much. And you will write and let me know when I can come North and be near you, won't you?" A sudden thought struck her. "Bunje, will they censor your letters? How awful! And mine too? Because I don't think I could bear it if anybody but you read my letters."
"No, they won't read 'em," reassured her husband. "At least, not yours. And if mine have to be read, the fellow who reads 'em just skims through 'em and doesn't really take in anything. I've had to do it, an' I know."
"Still, I'll hate it," said Betty woefully, and started at a light tap at the door. "Passengers are taking their seats, sir," said the warning voice outside.
Doors were banging and farewells sounding down the length of the train when Betty stepped out on to the platform. A curly-headed subaltern of a Highland regiment who had been in possession of the door surrendered it, and, catching a glimpse of Betty's face, returned to his compartment thanking all his Gods that he was a bachelor. A whistle sounded out of the gloom at the far end of the long train, and a green light waved above the heads of the leave-takers. A faltering cheer broke out, gathered volume, and, as the couplings tautened with a jerk, came an answering roar from the closely packed carriages.
Standish bent down. "Good-bye, Bet——" and for a moment lips and fingers met and clung. The train was moving slowly.
"God bless you!" she said with a queer little gasp, and stepped back into one of the circles of subdued light.
For a few seconds he saw her thus, a slim, girlish, fur-clad figure standing with her hands at her side like a schoolgirl in class, her face rather white and her lips compressed: then a bend hid her and the tumult of cheering and farewell died.
"Good on you, little girl," he muttered, and withdrew his head and shoulders to fumble fiercely for his pipe. Courage in the woman he loves will move a man as never will her tears. There is also gratitude in his heart.
He retraced his steps to his sleeping-compartment and was aware of the faint fragrance of violets still lingering in the air. She had been wearing some that he had bought her late that afternoon....
He sat down on the bunk and fervently pressed the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with his thumb. "Oh, damn-a-horse!" he said. For a moment he sat thus sucking his unlit pipe and staring hard at the carpet, and not until it sounded a second time did a knock at the door of the compartment cause him to raise his head and say, "Come in!"
The door opened, and a clean-shaven, smiling countenance, followed by a pair of broad shoulders, appeared cautiously in the opening. Standish stared at the apparition, and then rose with a grin of welcome.
"Why!" he said, "Podgie, of all people! Come in, you old blighter!"
The visitor entered. "How goes it, Bunje?" he said. "I saw you with your missus just now, so I hid—I'm in the next cabin." He indicated the adjoining compartment with a nod.
"Sit down, old lad. What are you doing here? I thought——" The speaker broke off abruptly, and his glance strayed involuntarily to the ground. The new-comer nodded, and, sitting down on the bunk, pushed his cap back from his forehead.
"That's right." He extended his left leg. "Cork foot. What d'you go on it, Bunje, eh?" They contemplated the acquisition in silence for a moment. "I was in a destroyer, you know," pursued the speaker, "and one of Fritz's shore batteries on the Belgian coast got our range by mistake one day at dawn. Dusted us down properly." He extended his leg again. "Hence the milk in the coco-nut, as you might say. However, we had a makee-learn doctor on board—Surgeon-Probationer, straight out of the egg, and no end of a smart lad: he dished me up in fine style. I went to hospital for a bit, and they gave me six months' full-pay sick leave—not a bad old firm, the Admiralty."
"What then," asked the other, "invalided?"
The visitor nodded. "But about a month ago I fell-in and said I couldn't kick my heels any longer. Hadn't two to kick, in point of fact!" He laughed softly at the grim jest. "So they lushed me up to this outfit, and gave me a job as King's Messenger. I'm carrying despatches between the Admiralty and the Fleet Flagship. Better'n doing nothing," he added half-apologetically.
"Quite," agreed Standish gravely: none knew better than he how beloved had been the career thus abruptly terminated. He wondered, as he met the speaker's smiling eyes with a sympathetic grin, whether he himself could have carried it off like this. "But it was rotten luck—I'm——"
The King's Messenger rose. "I've got a drop of whisky somewhere in my bag," he interrupted. "Come along in there: I can't leave my despatches—we'll have a yarn."
He limped through the doorway, steadying himself with his hands against the rocking of the train. Standish followed. Never again, he reflected, would he follow those broad shoulders in a U.S. "Forward rush" to the familiar slogan of "Feet—forwards—feet!"
"You were wounded, too, last spring, weren't you?" queried the King's Messenger, burrowing in his suit case for his flask. "Squat down at the end there—got your glass?" He measured out two portions of whisky and from the rack produced a bottle of soda. "Say when..."
Standish nodded. "Thanks—whoa! Yes, I got a couple of 'cushy' wounds and three months' leave."
The other turned, helping himself to soda-water. "Lor', yes, and you got spliced, too, Bunje!" He contemplated the Benedict over the rim of his tumbler with the whimsical faint curiosity with which the bachelor Naval Officer regards one of his brethren who has passed beyond the Veil.
"Yes." For a moment Standish assumed a thoughtful expression. Then he looked up, smiling. "What about you, Podgie? Isn't it about time you toed the line?"
The King's Messenger shook his head. "No. It doesn't come my way." His eyes rested contemplatively on his outstretched leg. "Not very likely to either.... How d'you like the idea of joining up with the 'Great Silent' again after the flesh-pots and whatnot?"
For the second time he had changed the conversation almost abruptly.
Standish lit his pipe. "What's it like up there now?" He jerked his head in the direction in which they were travelling. "How are they sticking it? Have you been up lately? I haven't been in the Grand Fleet yet."
"Yes, I was up—let's see, last week. Oh, they're all right. A bit bored, of course, but full of ginger. They go out and try to coax Fritz to come out and play from time to time. Fritz says 'Not in these trousers, I don't think,' and then they go home again, dodging 'tin fish' and raking up Fritz's 'warts' out of the Swept Channels. Talking of 'warts' reminds me of a yarn going round last time I was up—it's a chestnut now, but you may not have heard it. One of the mine-layers nipped down in a fog and laid a mine-field off the mouth of the Ems. It was a tricky bit of work, and it seems to have touched up the Padre's nerves a bit, because on the way back next morning, when he was reading prayers—you know the bit about 'encompassed the waters with bounds'?—he said, 'Encompassed the bounders with warts,' which was just what they had done, pretty effectively!"
The door to the corridor was half-open, and a tall figure in Naval uniform who was passing at that moment glanced in, hesitated, and filled the doorway with his bulk. A slow smile spread over his face and showed his white, even teeth. It was a very infectious grin.
"How goes it, Podgie?" he said quietly.
The King's Messenger looked up. "Hallo!" he retorted. Then came recognition. "Thorogood, surely! Come in, old lad. What are you doing aboard the lugger— D'you know Standish?"
The new-comer nodded a greeting, acknowledging the introduction.
"Station-mates in the East Indies, weren't we?" said Standish.
"That's right," replied the other. "I remember you: we were both in camp together—way back in the 'Naughty Naughts.' We used to call you the India-rubber Man—Bunje for short."
Standish laughed. "They do still," he said, "mine own familiar friends."
"Have a drop of whisky," interrupted the King's Messenger. "'Fraid I haven't got a glass——"
The visitor hesitated. "Well, I've got old Mouldy Jakes in my compartment. Can I bring him along: the old thing may get lonely. He was in your term in the Britannia, wasn't he?"
"He was. Fetch him along," said the King's Messenger. "Standish wants to know all about life in the Grand Fleet. You two ought to be able to enlighten him a bit between you."
Thorogood contemplated the India-rubber Man thoughtfully.
"Just joining up? Mouldy and I have been there since January, '15—I'll fetch him."
The speaker vanished and returned a moment later with a companion who wore a Lieutenant's uniform, and carried a tooth-glass in his hand. His lean, rather sallow face relaxed for an instant into a smile during the process of introduction, and then resumed a mask-like gravity. He up-ended a suit-case, sat down and silently eyed the others in turn.
"What have you two been doing?" asked the King's Messenger. "Been on leave?"
"Yes," replied Thorogood. "I met Mouldy this morning, and we had a day in town together."
"Brave man! I should be sorry to have had such a responsibility. What did you do?"
"Well, we lunched with my Uncle Bill at his club——"
"That was nice for Uncle Bill—what then?"
"Uncle Bill had to go to the Admiralty, so I took Mouldy for a walk in St. James's Park"—the speaker contemplated his friend sorrowfully—"and I lost him."
The King's Messenger laughed. "What happened to you, Mouldy?"
The officer addressed put his empty glass between his knees and proceeded to fill a cherrywood pipe of villainous aspect from a Korean oiled-silk tobacco pouch.
"Took a flapper to the movies," was the grave and somewhat unexpected reply.
Thorogood, lounging in any easy attitude against the door, took up the tale of gallantry. "Apparently the star film of the afternoon was 'Britain's Sea-Dogs, or Jack-Tars at War,' and that appears to have been too much for our little Lord Fauntleroy. He slipped out unbeknownst to the fairy, and I found him at the club an hour later playing billiards with the marker."
The cavalier relaxed not a muscle of his sphinx-like gravity. "Never know what to do with myself on leave," he observed in sepulchral tones. "Always glad to get back. Like the fellow in the Bastille—what?" He raised his empty tumbler and scanned the light through it with sombre interest. "Long ship, this, James."
The phrase is an old Navy one, and signifies much the same thing as the Governor of North Carolina said to the Governor of South Carolina.
"Sorry," apologised the host. "There isn't any more soda, I'm afraid, but——"
"Don't mind water," said his guest, diluting his tot from the water-bottle. He turned to the India-rubber Man.
"What ship're you going to?" he asked.
Standish named the ship to which he had been appointed. The other took a sip of his whisky and water and nodded with the air of one whose worst misgivings had been confirmed.
"I remember now: I saw your appointment. James and I belong to her. We're going to be shipmates, then." He blew a cloud of smoke ceilingwards. "It's all right in one of those new ships: no scuttles: tinned air and electric light between decks: wake up every morning feeling's if you'd been gassed. An' the turrets——" He plunged gloomily into technicalities that conveyed the impression that the interior of a turret of the latest design was the short cut to a lunatic asylum. "I'm the Assistant Gunnery Lieutenant in our hooker, and I tell you it's a dirty business."
"What d'you do for exercise?" queried the India-rubber Man when the Assistant Gunnery Lieutenant lapsed again into gloomy silence.
"Plenty of that," said Thorogood. "Deck-hockey and medicine-ball—you mark out a tennis-court on the quarter deck, you know, and heave a 9-lb. ball over a 5 ft. net—foursomes. Fine exercise." He spoke with the grave enthusiasm of the athlete, to whom the attainment of bodily fitness is very near to godliness indeed. "You can get a game of rugger when the weather is good enough to allow landing, and there's quite a decent little 9-hole golf course. Oh, you can keep fit enough."
"How about the sailors—are they keeping cheery?"
Thorogood laughed. "They're amazing. Of course, we've got a real white man for a Skipper—and the Commander, too: that goes a long way. And they're away from drink and—other things that ain't good for 'em. Everybody has more leisure to devote to them than in peace-time: their amusements and recreations generally. Cinema shows and regattas, boxing championships, and all the rest of it. There's fifty per cent. less sickness and fewer punishments than we ever had in peacetime. Of course, it's an exile for the married men—it's rough on them, but on the whole there's jolly little grumbling."
"Yes," said the India-rubber Man. "It must be rough on the married men." He felt suddenly as if an immense period of time had passed since he said good-bye to Betty: and the next moment he felt that he had had enough of the others. He wanted to get along to his own compartment where the scent of violets had lingered.
He rose, stretching himself, and slipped his pipe into his pocket. "Well," he said, "'Sufficient unto the day.' I'm turning in now."
There was a little pause after his departure, and Thorogood prodded the bowl of his pipe reflectively.
"I wonder what's happened to the India-rubber Man?" he said. "It's some time since I saw him last, but he's altered somehow. Not mouldy exactly, either...."
"He's married," said the King's Messenger, staring at the shaded electric light overhead, as he sprawled with one elbow on the pillow.
Mouldy Jakes gave a little grunt. "Thought as much. They get like that." He spoke as if referring to the victims of an incomprehensible and ravaging disease. "An' it's always the good ones that get nabbed." He eyed the King's Messenger with an expression of melancholy omniscience. "Not so suspicious, you know."
"Well," said Thorogood, "that is as may be: but I'm off to bed. Come along, Mouldy."
The misogamist suffered himself to be led to the double-berthed compartment he shared with Thorogood.
The King's Messenger locked the door after their departure and got into pyjamas. For a long time he sat cross-legged on his bunk, nursing his maimed limb and staring into vacancy as the express roared on through the night. Finally, as if he had arrived at some conclusion, he shook his head rather sadly, turned in, and switched out the light.
"Good lad, Podgie," observed Thorogood reflectively to his companion, as he proceeded to undress.
Mouldy Jakes, energetically brushing his teeth over the tiny washing-basin, grunted assent.
"Ever met my cousin Cecily?" pursued Thorogood. "No, I don't think you did: she was at school when we stayed with Uncle Bill before the war."
"Shouldn't remember her if I had," mumbled the gallant.
"She's Uncle Bill's ward, and by way of being rather fond of Podgie, I fancy—at least, she used to be, I know. But the silly old ass won't go near her since he lost his foot."
Mouldy Jakes dried his tooth-brush, and, fumbling in his trouser pocket, produced a penny.
"Heads or tails?" he queried.
"It's a head. Bags I the lower berth."
The India-rubber Man, in his compartment, had got into pyjamas and was sitting up in his bunk writing with a pencil and pad on his knees. When he had finished he stamped and addressed an envelope, rang for the attendant, and gave it to him to be posted at the next stopping-place. It bore an address in Queen's Gate, London, where at the moment the addressee, curled up in the centre of a very large bed, was doing her best in the darkness to keep a promise.
THE "NAVY SPECIAL"
Railway travel appeals to the sailor-man. It provides him with ample leisure for conversation, sleep, or convivial song. When the possibilities of these absorbing pursuits are exhausted, remains a heightened interest in the next meal.
The pale February sunlight was streaming across snow-covered moorland that stretched away on either side of the line, when the Highland Express drew up at the first stopping place the following morning. From every carriage poured a throng of hungry bluejackets in search of breakfast. Many wore long coats of duffle or sheepskin provided by a maternal Admiralty in view of the severe weather conditions in the far North. The British bluejacket is accustomed to wear what he is told to wear, and further, to continue wearing it until he is told to put on something else. Hence a draft of men sent North to the Fleet from one of the Naval depots in the South of England would cheerfully don the duffle coats issued to them on departure and keep them on until they arrived at their destination, with an equal disregard for such outward circumstances as temperature or environment.
A night's journey in a crowded and overheated railway carriage, muffled in such garb, would not commend itself to the average individual as an ideal prelude to a hearty breakfast. Yet the cheerful, sleepy-eyed crowd of apparently par-boiled Arctic explorers that invaded the restaurant buffet vociferously demanding breakfast, appeared on the best of terms with themselves, one another and the world at large.
A score or more of officers besieged a flustered girl standing beside a pile of breakfast baskets, and the thin, keen morning air resounded with banter and voices. The King's Messenger, freshly shaven and pink of countenance (a woman once likened his face to that of a cherub looked at through a magnifying glass), stood at the door of his carriage and exchanged morning greetings with travellers of his acquaintance. Then the guard's whistle sounded; the noise and laughter redoubled along the platform and a general scramble ensued. Doors slammed down the length of the train, and the damsel in charge of the breakfast baskets raised her voice in lamentation.
"Ane o' the gentlemen hasna paid for his basket!" she cried. Heads appeared at windows, and the owner of one extended a half-crown. "It's my friend in here," he explained. "His name is Mouldy Jakes, and he can't speak for himself because his mouth is too full of bacon; but he wishes me to say that he's awfully sorry he forgot. He was struck all of a heap at meeting a lady so early in the morning...." The speaker vanished abruptly, apparently jerked backwards by some mysterious agency. The train started.
The maiden turned away with a simper. "It was no his friend at all," she observed to the young lady from the buffet, who had emerged to wave farewell to a bold, bad Engine Room Artificer after a desperate flirtation of some forty seconds' duration. "It was himself."
"They're a' sae sonsie!" said the young lady from the buffet with a rapturous sigh.
At the junction where the train stopped at noon, Naval occupation of the North proclaimed itself. A Master-at-Arms, austere of visage and stentorian voiced, fell upon the weary voyagers like a collie rallying a flock of sheep. A Lieutenant-Commander of the Reserve, in a tattered monkey-jacket, was superintending the unstowing of bags and hammocks by a party of ancient mariners in white working rig and brown gaiters. A retired Boatswain, who apparently bore the responsibilities of local Traffic Superintendent upon his broad shoulders, held sage council with the engine driver.
The travellers were still many weary hours from their destination, but the solicitude of the great Mother Fleet for her sons' welfare was plain on every side. There were evidences of a carefully planned, wisely executed organisation in the speed with which the great crowd of blue-jackets and marines of all ranks and ratings, and bound for fifty different ships, were mustered, given their dinners and marshalled into the "Navy Special" that would take them on their journey.
Mouldy Jakes deposited his bags and rug strap on the platform and surveyed the scene with mournful pride. "Good old Navy!" he observed to the India-rubber Man, while Thorogood went in search of food. "Good old firm! Father and mother and ticket collector and supplier of ham-sandwiches to us all. Who wouldn't sell his little farm and go to sea?"
Standish picked up his suit-case and together they made for the adjoining platform, where the train that was to take them on their journey was waiting.
They selected a carriage and were presently joined by Thorogood, burdened with eatables and soda water. The bluejackets were already in their carriages, and the remaining officers, to the number of about a score, were settling down in their compartments. They represented all ranks of the British Navy; a Captain and two Commanders were joined by the Naval Attache of a great neutral Power on his way to visit the Fleet. An Engineer Commander and a Naval Instructor shared a luncheon basket with a Sub-Lieutenant and a volunteer Surgeon. Two Clerks, a Midshipman and a Torpedo Gunner found themselves thrown together, and at the last moment a Chaplain added himself to their company.
The last door closed and the King's Messenger, carrying his despatch case, came limping along the platform in company with the grey-bearded Commander in charge of the base. The King's Messenger climbed into his carriage and the journey was resumed. Along the shores of jade-tinted lochs, through far-stretching deer forest and grouse moor, past brawling rivers of "snow-brew," and along the flanks of shale-strewn hills, the "Navy Special" bore its freight of sailor-men.
No corridor connected the carriages to afford opportunities for an interchange of visits for gossip and change of companionship. The occupants of each compartment settled down grimly to endure the monotony of the last stage of their journey according to the dictates of their several temperaments.
The King's Messenger, in the seclusion of his reserved compartment, read a novel at intervals and looked out of the window for familiar landmarks that recalled spells of leave in pre-war days, when he tramped on two feet through the heather behind the dogs, or, thigh deep in some river, sent a silken line out across the peat-brown water.
In an adjoining compartment a Lieutenant of the Naval Reserve sat at one end facing a Lieutenant of the Volunteer Reserve, while a small Midshipman, effaced behind a magazine, occupied the other corner. Conversation, stifled by ham sandwiches, restarted fitfully, and flagged from train weariness. Darkness pursued the whirling landscape and blotted it out. Sleep overtook the majority of the travellers until the advent of tea baskets at the next stopping place revived them to a more lively interest in life and one another.
The Reserve Lieutenant fussed over his like a woman. "I wouldn't trouble if I never smelt whisky again," he confided to his vis-a-vis, "but I couldn't get on without tea." He helped himself to three lumps of sugar.
The ice thinned rapidly.
"With fresh milk," said the Volunteer Reserve man appreciatively, pouring himself out a cup. "Eh, Jennings?"
The Midshipman, thus addressed, grinned and applied himself in silence to a scone and jam.
"Ah," said the Reserve man with a kind of tolerance in his tone, such as a professional might extend to the enthusiasm of an amateur in his own trade. "Cows scarce in your job?"
"A bit," was the unruffled reply. "We've just brought a Norwegian wind-jammer in from the South of Iceland...." He indicated with a nod the young gentleman in the corner, who was removing traces of jam from his left cheek. "I'm bringing the armed guard back to our base."
The Reserve man drank his tea after the manner of deep-sea sailor-men. That is to say, you could shut your eyes and still know: he was drinking hot tea.
"Armed Merchant-cruiser squadron?" he queried. Imperceptibly his tone had changed. The Armed Merchant-cruisers maintain the Allied blockade across the trade routes of the Far North: "fancy" sailor-men do not apply for jobs in one of these amazons of the North Sea, and it takes more than a Naval uniform to bring a suspect sailing ship many miles into port for examination under an armed guard of four men.
The Volunteer nodded. "We had a picnic, I can tell you. It blew like hell from the N.E., and the foretopmast—she was a barque—went like a carrot the second day. We hove to, trying to rig a jury mast, when up popped a Fritz." The speaker laughed, a pleasant, deep laugh of complete enjoyment. "I thought we were in for a swim that would knock the cross-Channel record silly! However, I borrowed a suit from the skipper—and he wasn't what you'd call fastidious in his dress either——"
The Volunteer made a little grimace at the recollection, because he was a man of refined tastes and raced his own yacht across the Atlantic in peace time.
"It was too rough to board, but the submarine closed to within hailing distance, and a little pipsqueak of a Lieutenant, nervous as a cat, talked to us through a megaphone. Fortunately I can speak Norwegian...."
"What about the skipper of the wind-jammer?" interrupted the other.
"He kept his mouth shut. Wasn't much in sympathy with the company that owned the submarine, having lost a brother the month before in a steamship shelled and sunk without warning. You can't please everybody, it seems, when you start out to act mad in a submarine. Well, this lad examined our papers through a glass and I chucked him a cigar.... He hadn't had a smoke for a week. Then he sheered off, because he saw something on the horizon that scared him. He was very young, and, as I've said, nerves like fiddle strings."
The Reserve man lit a cigarette and inhaled a great draught of smoke. There was something in his alert, intent expression reminiscent of a bull terrier when he hears rats scuffling behind a wainscot.
The war has evolved specialists without number in branches of Naval warfare hitherto unknown and unsuspected. Among these is the Submarine Hunter. The Reserve man belonged to this type, which is simply a reversion to the most primitive and savage of the fighting instincts. At the first mention of the German submarine he leaned forward eagerly.
"Threw him a cigar, did you?" he said grimly. "Sorry I wasn't there. I'd have thrown him something. That's my line of business—Fritz-hunting."
The ribbon of the Distinguished Service Cross on the lapel of his monkey-jacket showed that he apparently pursued this branch of sport with some effect. "Been at it from the kick-off," he continued. "Started with herring nets, you know!" He laughed a deep bark of amusement. "Lord! We had a lot to learn. We began from an East Coast fishing port, working with crazy drifters manned by East Coast fishermen. There was a retired Admiral in charge, as tough an old terror as ever pulled on a sea boot—and half a dozen of us all together, some Active Service and some Reserve like me. Navy? Bless you, we were the Navy, that old Admiral and us six." The speaker raised his voice to make plain his words above the rattle of the train. "There was a lot of talk in the papers about Jellicoe and Beatty and the Grand Fleet and the Battle Cruisers, but they didn't come our way and we didn't trouble them. We had a couple of score of trawlers and drifters and four hundred simple fishermen to cram the fear of the Lord into. That was our job!"
He spoke with the peculiar word-sparing vividness of the man to whom the Almighty had vouchsafed the mysterious gift of handling other men. "Long-shore and deep-sea fishermen, good material, damned good, but they took a lot of coaxing." He paused and contemplated his hands resting on his knees. Scarred by frost-bite they were, with huge bones protruding like knuckle-dusters. "Coaxing, mind you," he repeated. "I've been chief of an Argentine cattle-boat for four years and Second on a windjammer round the Horn for three years before that. I know when to drive and when to coax. Never touched a man, sir." He paused, rubbing off the moisture condensed on the window, to peer info the night.
Here, then, was an Apostle of Naval Discipline among a community of fishermen whose acknowledged tradition it was to get drunk when and where it suited their inclinations, to put to sea in the top-hats of their ancestors and return to harbour as weather or the fish dictated, whose instinctive attitude towards strangers was about as encouraging as that of the Solomon Islanders.
"We took 'em and trained 'em—gradually, you understand. Taught 'em to salute the King's uniform, an' just why orders had to be obeyed: explained it all gently"—the stupendous hand made a gesture in the air as if stroking something. "Then after a while we moved 'em on to something else—the Game itself, in fact—and my merry men tumbled to it in no time. It was in their blood, I guess. They'd hunted something all their lives, and they weren't scared because they had to take on something a bit bigger. I tell you, after a few weeks I just prayed for a submarine to come along and show what we could do."
The Volunteer grinned understandingly. "Well?" he said.
"We got one a week later. Just for all the world like a bloomin' salmon. First we knew that there was one about was the Merrie Maggie, one of our trawlers, blowing up. Well, I'd been over the same spot in the morning, and there were no mines there then, so I knew our friend wasn't far off...." The Submarine Hunter mused for a moment, staring at his clasped hands, with the faint blue tattoo-marks showing under the tan. "We got him at dawn—off a headland.... Oh, best bit of sport that ever I had!" The speaker's hard grey eye softened at the recollection. "We've got lots since, but never one as neat as that. He just came to the surface and showed his tail-fin and——" the huge hands made a significant downward gesture.
If you have ever heard a Regimental Bombing Officer describe the clearing of an enemy traverse, you will understand the complete expressiveness of that gesture.
"I'm going North now to join a new base up there. There are one or two dodges that I can put them up to, I reckon."
The Volunteer filled and lit a pipe.
"Pretty work it sounds. Ours is duller, on the whole, but we get our share of excitement. You never sight a steamer flying neutral colours without the possibility of her hoisting the German ensign and slipping a torpedo into you. That's why we introduced the Red Pendant business. It meant inconvenience for all parties, but neutrals have only got the Hun to thank for it."
"Never heard of it," said the other. "Fritz-hunting is my game."
"Well, you see, ever since they've tried to slip raiders through the blockade we can't afford to close a stranger flying neutral colours within gun or torpedo range. So we had to explain to neutrals that a red flag hoisted by one of our merchant cruisers is the signal to heave to instantly, and that brings her up well out of range. Then we drop a boat and steam off and signal her to close the boat, and the boarding officer goes on board and examines her papers. If she's got a cargo without guarantees she's sent into one of the examination ports under an armed guard to have it overhauled properly."
"Yes, and to see that the commodity she carries isn't in excess of the ration allowed to the country of destination—if she's eastward bound, that is. Also the passengers are scrutinised for suspects, and so on; it's a big job, one way and another. That's all done by the Examination Service at the port, though, and I don't envy them the job. We only catch 'em and bring 'em in."
For a while longer he talked between puffs at his pipe of the "twilight service" rendered by the Armed Merchant-cruisers. He spoke of grim stern-chases under the Northern Lights, of perils from ice and submarines and winter gales, while the Allied strangle-hold tightened month by month, remorselessly, relentlessly.
"It's a peaceful sort of job, though, on the whole," he concluded. "Nobody worries us. The public, most of 'em, don't know we exist. Journalists don't want to come and visit us much," he chuckled. "We don't find our way into the illustrated papers...."
"That's right," said the Submarine Hunter. "That's the way to work in war-time. If I had my way——"
A jarring shudder ran through the train as the brakes were applied and the speed slackened. The Reserve Man lowered the window and peered out into the darkness. A flurry of snow drifted into the dimly lighted carriage.
"Hallo!" he ejaculated. "We're here. Bless me, how the time goes when one gets yarning."
The Volunteer rose and held out his hand.
"My name is Armitage," he said, and named two exclusive clubs, one in London and the other in New York. "Look me up after the war if you pass that way."
The Submarine Hunter took the proffered hand in his formidable grip.
"Pleased to have met you. Mine's Gedge. I don't own a club, but the Liverpool Shipping Federation generally knows my address. And the girls from Simonstown to Vladivostock will tell you if I've passed that way!"
He threw back his head, displaying the muscular great throat above his collar, and laughed like a mischievous boy.
"Good luck!" he said.
"Good hunting!" replied the Volunteer.
He turned to the Midshipman. "Come along, sonny, shake the sleep out of your eyes and go and collect our little party."
Outside in the snowy darkness the great concourse of men was being mustered: lanterns gleamed on wet oilskins and men's faces. Hoarse voices and the tramp of heavy boots through the slush heralded the passage along the platform of each draft as they were marched to the barrier. A cold wind cut through the cheerless night like a knife.
Armitage paused for a moment to accustom his eyes to the darkness.
"Here we are, Mouldy," said a clear-cut, well-bred voice out of the darkness surrounding a pile of luggage. "Here's our stuff. Get a truck, old thing!"
Armitage turned in the direction of the voice: as he did so a passing lantern flashed on the face of a Lieutenant stooping over some portmanteaux.
"I thought as much," he said. "Thought I recognised the voice." He stepped towards the speaker and rested his hand on his shoulder. "James Thorogood, isn't it?" he said.
The other straightened up and peered through the darkness at the face of the Volunteer Lieutenant. "Yes," he replied, "but it's devilish dark—I can't——"
"I'm Armitage," said the other. Thorogood laughed. "Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "Were you in the train? I didn't see you before——"
"Neither did I," was the reply, "but I heard your voice and recognised it. How is Sir William?"
"Uncle Bill? Oh, he's all right. Hard at work on some comic invention of his, as usual."
The other nodded. "Well, give him my love when you write, and tell him I've struck the type of man he wants for that experiment of his. I'll write to him, though. Now I must go and find my little party of braves—bringing an armed guard back to our base. Good-bye and good luck to you."
They shook hands, and the Volunteer half turned away. An afterthought appeared to strike him, however, and he stopped.
"By the way," he added, "how's Miss Cecily? Well, I hope?"
"She's all right, thanks," was the reply. "I'll tell her I've seen you."
"Will you? Yes, thank you. And will you say I—I am looking forward to seeing her again next time I come South?"
The speaker moved away into the darkness.
At that moment appeared Mouldy Jakes, panting behind a barrow. "Who's that old bird?" he queried.
"Another of 'em," replied Thorogood.
"'Nother of what?"
"Cecily's hopeless attachments. He's a pal of Uncle Bill's, and as rich as Croesus. Amateur deep sea yachtsman before the war. He's awfully gone on Cecily."
"'Counts for him hanging round your neck, I s'pose," commented the student of human nature. "Sort of 'dweller-near-the-rose' business. Heave that suit-case over—unless you can find any more of your cousin's admirers sculling about the country. P'raps they'll load this truck for us and shove it to the boat. Ah, here's Podgie!"
A moment later the King's Messenger joined the group.
"Will you all come and have supper with me at the hotel?" he said. "It's the last meal you'll get on terra firma for some time to come. I've got a car waiting outside."
Mouldy Jakes heaved the last of the bags on to the hand-cart and enlisted the services of a superannuated porter drifting past in the darkness. The King's Messenger had slipped his arm inside Thorogood's, and the two moved on towards the barrier.
"Has your wife got a young brother?" asked Mouldy Jakes abruptly as he and the India-rubber Man followed in the wake of the porter and the barrow.
"Yes," replied Standish. "A lad called Joe—cadet at Dartmouth."
"Did you ever ask him to dinner—before you were engaged, I mean?" pursued the inquisitor.
The India-rubber Man laughed.
"Well, not dinner exactly. But I went down to Osborne College once and stood him a blow-out at the tuck-shop."
His companion nodded darkly in the direction of the King's Messenger.
"Shouldn't wonder if Thorogood was feeling like that lad Joe. Useful fellow to travel with, Thorogood."
Across the stormy North Sea came the first faint streak of dawn. It overtook a long line of Destroyers rolling landward with battered bridge-screens and salt-crusted funnels; it met a flotilla of mine-sweeping Sloops, labouring patiently out to their unending task. It lit the frowning cliffs, round which wind-tossed gulls wailed and breakers had thundered the beat of an ocean's pulse throughout the ages.
The Destroyers were not sorry to see the dawn. The night was their task-master: in darkness they worked and in the Shadow of Death. They passed within hailing distance of the Sloops, and on board the reeling Destroyers here and there a figure in streaming oilskins raised his arm and waved a salutation to the squat grey craft setting forth in the comfortless dawn to holystone Death's doorstep.
The Mine-sweepers refrained from any such amenity. Anon the darkness would come again, when no man may sweep for mines. Then would be their turn for grins and the waving of arms. In the meanwhile, they preferred to remain grim and restless as their work.
Presently the Destroyers, obedient to a knotted tangle of flags at the yardarm of their leader, altered course a little; they were making for an opening in the wall of rock, on either side of which gaunt promontories thrust their naked shoulders into the surf. The long black, viperish hulls passed through under the ever-watchful eyes of the shore batteries, and the hooded figures on the Destroyer bridges threw back their duffle cowls and wiped the night's accumulation of dried spray and cinders out of the puckers round their tired eyes.
The Commanding Officer of the leading Destroyer leaned across the bridge-rails and stared round at the ring of barren islands encircling the great expanse of water into which they had passed, the naked, snow-powdered hills in the background: at the greyness and desolation of earth and sky and sea.
"Home again!" he said in an undertone to the Lieutenant beside him. "It ain't much of a place to look at, but I'm never sorry to see it again after a dusting like we got last night."
The Lieutenant raised the glasses slung round his neck by a strap and levelled them at a semi-globular object that had appeared on the surface some distance away. "There's old Tirpitz waiting to say good morning as usual."
The Commander laughed. "Rum old devil he is. That's where the Hun has the pull over us. He's got something better than a seal to welcome him back to harbour—when he does get back!"
"When he does, yes." The other chuckled. "Gretchens an' iron crosses an' joy bells. Lord, I'd love to see 'em, wouldn't you? Just for five minutes!"
The Commander moved across to the tiny binnacle. "I'd rather see my own wife for five minutes," he replied. Then, raising his voice, "Starboard ten!"
"Starboard ten, sir," repeated the voice of the helmsman.
The Commander stood with watchful eye on the swinging compass card. "Midships ... steady!"
"Steady, sir!" sang the echo at the wheel. The Commander glanced aft through the trail of smoke at the next astern swinging round in the smother of his wake. "Well, we shan't be long now before we tie up to the buoy—curse these fellows! Here come all the drifters with mails and ratings for the Fleet.... Port five!"
"Port five, sir!" The flotilla altered course disdainfully to avoid a steam drifter which wallowed through the wake of the Destroyers in the direction of the distant fleet, still shrouded by the morning mist. "That's the King's Messenger going off to the Fleet Flagship. There come the others, strung out in a procession, making for the different squadrons. Wake up, you son of Ham!" The speaker stepped to the lanyard of the syren and jerked it savagely. Obedient to the warning wail another drifter altered course in reluctant compliance with the Rule of the Road. "I'd rather take the flotilla through Piccadilly Circus than manoeuvre among these Fleet Messengers! They're bad enough on the high seas in peace-time with their nets out, but booming about inside a harbour they're enough to turn one's hair grey."
If the truth be told, the past had known no great love lost between the Destroyers and the fishing fleet. Herring-nets round a propeller are not calculated to bind hearts together in brotherly affection. Perhaps dim recollections of bygone mishaps of this nature had soured the Destroyer Commander's heart towards the steam-drifter.
On the outbreak of war, however, the steam fishing fleets became an arm of the great Navy itself, far-reaching as its own squadrons. They exchanged their nets for guns and mine-sweeping paraphernalia: they became submarine-hunters, mine-sweepers, fleet-messengers and patrollers of the great commerce sea-ways in the South. They became a little Navy within the Navy, in fact, already boasting their own peculiar traditions, and probably as large a proportion of D.S.C.'s as any other branch of the mother Service.
They are a slow, crab-gaited community that clings to gold earrings and fights in jerseys and thigh boots from which the fish-scales have not altogether departed. Ashore, on the other hand (where their women rule), they consent to the peaked cap and brass buttons of His Majesty's uniform, and wear it, moreover, with the coy self-consciousness of a bulldog in a monogrammed coat.
Link by link they have built up a chain of associations with the parent Navy that will not be easily broken when the time comes for these little auxiliaries to return to their peaceful calling. They have worked side by side with the dripping Submarine; they have sheltered through storms in the lee of anchored Battleships; they have piloted proud Cruisers through the newly-swept channels of a mine-field, and brought a Battle-cruiser Squadron its Christmas mail in the teeth of a Northern blizzard. In token of these things, babies born in fishing villages from the Orkneys to the Nore have been christened after famous Admirals and men-of-war, that the new generation shall remember.
The drifter that had altered course slowly came round again when the last of the Destroyers swept past, and the three figures in the bows ducked as she shipped a bucket of spray and flung it aft over the tiny wheel-house. One of the figures turned and stared after the retreating hulls.
"Confound 'em," he said. "Just like the blooming Destroyers, chucking their weight about as if they owned creation, and making us take their beastly wash." He took off his cap and shook the salt water from it. One of the other two chuckled. "Never 'mind, Mouldy, it will be your turn to laugh next time we go to sea, when you're perched on the forebridge sixty feet above the waterline, and watching our Destroyer-screen shipping it green over their funnels."
Mouldy Jakes shook his head gloomily. "Laugh!" he echoed. "Then I'd get shoved under arrest by the skipper under suspicion of being drunk."
The drifter rounded an outlying promontory of one of the islands, and Thorogood raised his hand. "There you are," he said, "there's our little lot!" He indicated with a nod the Battle-fleet of Britain.
"And very nice too," said the India-rubber Man, staring in the direction of the other's gaze. "Puts me in mind, as they say, of a picture I saw once. 'National Insurance,' I think it was called."
A shaft of sunlight had struggled through a rift in the clouds and fell athwart the dark waters of the harbour. In the far distance, outlined against the sombre hills and lit by the pale sunshine, a thicket of tripod masts rose towering above the grey hulls of the anchored Battle-fleet.
As the drifter drew near the different classes of ships became distinguishable. A squadron of Light Cruisers were anchored between them and the main Fleet, with a thin haze of smoke hovering above their raking funnels. Beyond them, line upon line, in a kind of sullen majesty, lay the Battleships. Seen thus in peace-time, a thousand glistening points of burnished metal, the white of the awnings, smooth surfaces of enamel, varnish and gold-leaf would have caught the liquid sunlight and concealed the menace of that stern array.
Now, however, stripped of awnings, with bare decks, stark as gladiators, sombre and terrible, they conveyed a relentless significance heightened by the desolation of their surroundings.
From the offing came the rumble of heavy gunfire.
"Don't be alarmed," said Thorogood to the India-rubber Man, who had turned in the direction of the sound; "we haven't missed the bus!" He looked along the lines with a swift, practised eye. "It's only some of the Battle-cruisers out doing target practice. That's our squadron, there." He pointed ahead. "We're the second ship in that line."
The drifter passed up a broad lane, on either side of which towered grey steel walls, unbroken by scuttles or embrasures; above them the muzzles of guns hooded by casemates and turrets, the mighty funnels, piled up bridges and superstructures, frowned down like the battlements of fortresses. Men, dwarfed by the magnitude of their environment to the size of ants, and clad in jerseys and white working-rig, swarmed about the decks and batteries.
"There's the Fleet Flagship," continued Thorogood, pointing. "That ship with the drifters round her, flying the Commander-in-Chief's flag. That's where Podgie was bound for. Rummy to think he'll be back in London again in a couple of days' time!"
A seaplane that had been riding on the surface near the Fleet Flagship's quarter, rose like a flying gull, circled in wide spirals over the Fleet and sped seawards. Across the lanes of water, armed picket-boats, with preternaturally grave-faced Midshipmen at their wheels, picked their way amongst the traffic of drifters, cutters under sail, hooting store carriers and puffers from the distant base.
Mouldy Jakes contemplated the busy scene without undue enthusiasm.
"Everything seems to be much the same as usual," was his dry comment. "They seem to have got on all right without me for the last seven days. We've had a coat of paint, too. Wonder what's up. P'raps the King's coming to pay us a visit. Or else the Commander reckons it's about time to beat up for his promotion."
The skipper of the drifter jerked the miniature telegraph to "Slow," and a hoary-headed deck-hand stumped into the bows with a heaving line coiled over his arm. The drifter crept up under the quarter of a Battleship that towered above them into the grey sky.
A tall, thin Lieutenant with a telescope under his arm looked down from the quarterdeck and made a gesture of greeting.
"Hullo, Tweedledum," said Thorogood; and added, "Bless me, Tweedledum's shaved his beard off!"
"Must be the King, then," said Mouldy gloomily. "Means I shall have to order another monkey-jacket." A bull terrier thrust a python-like head between the rails and wagged his tail. The drifter grated her fenders alongside and made fast.
The three officers climbed the swaying ladder to the upper deck, and were greeted in turn by the tall Lieutenant with the telescope. "You're Standish, aren't you?" he asked, turning to the India-rubber Man. "The Commander wants to see you—you're an old shipmate of his, it seems?" He led the way as he spoke towards a door in the after superstructure.
"Yes," was the reply. "He was the First Lieutenant in my last ship—with this Skipper."
"Ah," said the other, "she must have been a good ship then."
They skirted a hatchway in the interior of the superstructure that yawned into the electric-lit interior of the ship, past cabins opening on to the foremost side of them, and stopped at a curtained doorway. A square of polished mahogany was screwed into the bulkhead beside it, with the following inscription in brass letters:
DON'T KNOCK. COME IN.
The Officer of the Watch drew back the curtain and motioned to his companion to enter. "Lieutenant Commander Standish, sir," he said.
The Commander, who was writing at a knee-hole table, turned and rose with his grave, slow smile.
"Come in, Bunje," he said, holding out his hand. "Very glad you've got here at last." He laid his left hand for an instant on the India-rubber Man's shoulder and searched his face with kindly grey eyes. "How're the wounds and the wife and all the other things you've collected since I saw you last?"
The India-rubber Man laughed.
"They're all right, sir, thanks." He glanced at the cap, with its gold oak leaves adorning the brim, lying on the desk. "I haven't congratulated you on your promotion yet," he added. "I was awfully glad to hear you had got your 'brass hat'!"
The Commander laughed. "I still turn round when anyone sings out 'Number One,'" he replied. "I was beginning to feel as if I'd been a First Lieutenant all my life! Seems quite funny not to be chivvying round after the flat-sweepers." He resumed his seat. "Well, you'll find a few of the old lot here: there's the Skipper of course, and Double-O Gerrard—d'you remember the A.P.? And little Pills: he's Staff Surgeon now, and no end of a nut... Let's see—oh, yes, and young Bowses: he used to be one of our snotties, if you remember. 'Kedgeree,' the others called him. He's Sub of the Gunroom. That's about all of the old lot in the Channel Fleet. But I think you'll like all the rest. It's a very happy mess."
The India-rubber Man was roving round the cabin examining photographs.
"Hullo!" he said. "You've got poor old Torps's photo here."
"Yes," was the reply. "I—I met a woman when I was on leave, of whom he was very fond. She had two of his photographs and gave me that one." The Commander had risen to his feet and was staring out of the scuttle with absent eyes. "But, come along. The Skipper wants to see you, and then I'll take you along to the mess. It's getting on for lunch time. What sort of a journey did you have?"
Still chatting they left the superstructure and passed aft along the spacious quarterdeck, where, round the flanks of the great superimposed turrets, a part of the watch were sweeping down the deck and squaring off ropes. The Commander led the way down a hatchway aft to an electric-lit lobby, where a marine sentry clicked to attention as they passed, and opened a door in the after bulkhead. They crossed the fore cabin extending the whole beam of the ship, and entered the after cabin.
Unlike other cabins on the main deck, this was lit by scuttles in the ship's side, and right aft, big armoured doors opened on to the stern walk. It lacked conspicuously the adornments usually associated with the Captain's apartment. Bare corticene covered the deck; the walls of white enamelled steel were unadorned save for a big scale chart of the North Sea and a coloured map of the Western Front. A few framed photographs stood on the big roll-topped desk in one corner, and a bowl of purple heather occupied the flat mahogany top to the tiled stove where an electric radiator glowed. A bundle of singlesticks and a pair of foils stood in the corner near an open bookcase; a padded "chesterfield" and a few chairs completed the austere furnishing of the cabin.
The Captain was standing before a deal table supported by trestles, which occupied the deck space beneath the open skylight. On the table, amid the litter of glue-pots, cardboard, thread and varnish, stood a model of a Super-Dreadnought. He turned at the entry of the Commander and his companion, laying down a pair of scissors.
"Good morning, Standish," he said. "Glad to see you again. I won't offer to shake hands—mine are covered with glue." He smiled in the whimsical humorous way that always went straight to another man's heart. "We're all returning to our second childhood up here, you see!" He indicated the model. "This is my device for keeping out of mischief. When finished I hope it will fill a similar role for the benefit of my son, Cornelius James."
Standish examined the model with interest and delight.
"What a ripping bit of work, sir," he said. It was, indeed, a triumph of patient ingenuity and craftmanship.
"It's an improvement on wood-carving," was the reply. "All working parts, you see." The Captain set in motion some internal mechanism, and the turret guns trained slowly on to the beam. He pressed a button. "Electric bow and steaming lights!" His voice had a ring of almost boyish enthusiasm, and he picked up a tangle of threads from the table. "But this fore-derrick purchase is the devil, though. All last evening I was on the sheaves of one of the double blocks—maddening work. Hornby's designing a hydraulic lift to the engine-room; column of water concealed in the foremast, d'you see? When's that going to be finished, Hornby?"
The Commander laughed. "We'll have it done in time for Corney's birthday, sir."
The Captain turned from the model. "Well, Standish," he said, "all this"—he nodded at the work of his patient hands—"all this looks rather as if we never had anything better to do! As a matter of fact, it's only during the winter that one finds time for anything. We're pretty busy, one way and another, you'll find. It'll take you some time to learn your way round your turret, I expect. Jakes appears to find his an object of some interest—do you know him, by the way?" The Captain's humorous blue eyes twinkled.
"Yes, I travelled up with him, sir. He mentioned the turret."
"He probably did. He spends most of his life in his. Well, I'm glad you've turned up in time for the Regatta. Our Wardroom crew wants a bit of weight. I told the Admiral we were going to win the cock—the Squadron trophy—this year, so you must see what you can do about it. Also, I want you to look after the Midshipmen. They're a good lot, and there's one in particular—Harcourt, isn't it, Commander?—who ought to pull off the Midshipmen's Lightweights if he can keep down to the weight. One or two want shaking up—Lettigne's too fat—— However, you probably want to sling your hammock; hope you'll be comfortable." The Captain nodded dismissal. As they reached the door the Captain spoke again. "By the way," he said, "the children send their love...."
"Now," said the Commander as they emerged, "it's nearly lunch time. Come along to the smoking-room."
They ascended again to the upper deck and forward of the superstructure, descended a hatchway to the main deck. An open door in the armoured bulkhead gave a glimpse forward of a gun battery and a teeming mess-deck intent on its mid-day meal, where men jostled each other so thickly round the crowded mess tables that it seemed incredible that anyone could live for years in such surroundings and retain an individuality.
They turned away and passed aft down an electric-lit alley-way. A door on the right opened for a moment as they passed, and emitted the strains of a gramophone and a boy's laughter.
"That's the Gunroom," said the Commander. He led the way round a corner and past the bloated trunk of an air-shaft to the other side of the ship. "Here we are," he said, and opened a mahogany door in the white bulkhead, stepping aside to allow the other to enter a smallish square apartment lit by a skylight overhead and hazy with tobacco smoke. A few padded settees and arm-chairs and a piano of venerable aspect, together with a table covered by magazines and papers, comprised the furniture; half-a-dozen coloured prints and a baize-covered notice board completed the adornment of the walls. Through a doorway beyond came the hum of conversation and clatter of knives and forks, where, in the Wardroom, lunch had already commenced. About half-a-dozen members of the Mess, however, still occupied the smoking-room; the nearest to the door, a short, slightly built Staff Surgeon, in the act of shaking angostura bitters into a glass which a steward proffered on a tray, turned his head as the newcomers entered.
"Bunje!" he cried, and put the bitters down. "Bunje! my son, Bunje! Oh, frabjous day, Calloo, Callay! My arms enfold ye...." He enveloped the India-rubber Man in a bear-like embrace. "Behold the prodigal returning! Steward, bring hither a fatted calf and the swizzle-stick. Put a cherry in it and a slice of lemon and eke crushed ice. My dear life!" He held the India-rubber Man at an arm's length. "Bunje, these are moments when strong men sob like little children. But let me introduce you."
The occupants of the smoking-room, grinning, came forward to greet the new messmate. The Staff Surgeon named them in turn.
"This is the P.M.O. He's plus two at golf. I mention that in case he offers to take you ashore and play you for half-a-crown. P.M.O., this is Standish, a wounded hero and a friend of my care-free youth." The speaker rolled his r's, thrust his hand into the bosom of his monkey-jacket and struck a histrionic attitude.
"Seated on the settee," he resumed, "caressing an overfed bull terrier, we have Tweedledee, likewise overfed. Get up and say how d'you do to the gentleman, Tweedledee."
A short, chubby-faced Lieutenant rose and shook hands rather shyly.
"Now," pursued the Doctor, "casting our eyes round the room at random we see the Pilot—otherwise known as the 'Merry Wrecker.' The portly gentleman in clerical garb helping himself to a cigarette out of someone else's tin—His Eminence the Padre. The Captain of Marines you see consuming gin and bitters: title of picture, 'Celebrities and their Hobbies.' This is the Engineer Commander. He is considerably senior to me and I therefore refrain from being witty at his expense. Taking advantage of the general confusion caused by your arrival, the First Lieutenant selects this moment to peep into the turgid pages of an illustrated Parisian journal I regret to say this mess contributes to."
The lecturer paused for breath. A tall, florid-faced Lieutenant Commander with a broken nose, who had been leaning over the paper table, pipe in mouth, straightened up with a chuckle and ostentatiously fluttered the pages of the Times. He eyed the Staff Surgeon reflectively for a moment and turned to the Captain of Marines.
"Have we had enough, do you think, Soldier?" he asked in a voice of ominous quiet.
"I almost think so," replied the Captain of Marines. He finished his aperitif and stared absently at the skylight overhead.
"Pills, dear," said the First Lieutenant in honeyed accents, "we're afraid you are showing off before a stranger. There is only one penalty for that."
"The Glory-hole," said the Captain of Marines, and hurled himself on the Staff Surgeon. The First Lieutenant followed suit, and between them they dragged their struggling victim to the door.
The bull terrier leaped around them with hysterical yelps of excitement.
"Open the door, Padre," gasped the Captain of Marines as the struggle swayed to and fro. "Garm, you fool, shut up!"
The Chaplain complied with the request with alacrity, and the three interlocked figures and the ecstatic dog floundered through out into the flat.
Just outside, in an angle formed by the armour of the turret and the Wardroom bulkhead, was a small cupboard. It was used by the flat-sweeper and messengers for the stowage of brooms, polishing paste, caustic soda and other appliances of their craft, and was just large enough to hold a small man upright.
Into this dungeon, with the assistance of the Navigator, they succeeded in stowing the Staff Surgeon, and despite his protests and frantic struggles, shut and fastened the door.
"Now," said the First Lieutenant, "let's go and have some lunch."
"But you aren't going to leave him there, are you?" protested the India-rubber Man.
"Oh, no," was the reply. "The Padre is taking the time. Three minutes we give him." They passed through into the long Wardroom where a score or more of officers were seated at lunch round the table that occupied practically the whole length of the apartment. "Come and sit here next to Thorogood—you travelled up with him, didn't you?"
The officer in question, who was ladling stewed prunes out of a dish on to his plate, grinned at the new-comer.
"Here you are," he said gaily. "Pea soup and boiled pork, my lad," and passed the menu. "Mouldy's vanished since we got onboard. He's probably lunching in his blessed old turret. I had some difficulty in restraining him from trying to put his arms round it when he saw it again. Hullo! Here's Pills. Pills, you look rather warm and your hair wants brushing."
"So would yours if you had been set upon by Thugs," retorted the Doctor as he took his seat. "Pea soup, please. Ha! There you are, Bunje. Sorry I had to slip it across Number One and the Soldier just now. However, boys will be boys and the least said soonest mended. All is not gold that glitters and a faint heart never won fair lady—pass the salt, please."
"'Fraid we're rather a noisy mess," said the Commander. "You don't get much chance to sit and think beautiful thoughts when Pills is about. Hope you'll get used to it."
The India-rubber Man laughed. "I expect so," he said.
"Properly at ease.... Class, 'Shun! Left turn! Dismiss!"
The dozen or so of flannel-dad Midshipmen composing the class sprang stiffly to attention, turned forward, and made off briskly in the direction of the hatchway. The India-rubber Man thrust his hands into the pockets of his flannel trousers and strolled across the quarterdeck to where the Officer of the Watch was standing.
"Tweedledum," he said, elevating his nose and sniffing the keen morning air, "I can smell bacon frying somewhere. So could my class: I could see their mouths watering. You might send for the cook and tell him not to do it."
"You're a dirty bully, Bunje, you know," said the Officer of the Watch reprovingly. "Fancy dragging those unhappy children out of their innocent hammocks at this unearthly hour of the morning to flap their legs and arms about and do 'Knees up!' and 'Double-arm-bend-and-stretch!'" He raised a gloved hand and rubbed his blue nose. Ashore a powdering of snow lay on the distant hills; in the East the sky was flushing with bars of orange and gold athwart the tumbled clouds. An armed drifter, coming in from the open sea, stood out against the light in strong relief. "Here's Mouldy Jakes coming back from Night Patrol—I bet even he isn't as cold as I am."
"Rot!" retorted the Physical Trainer. "Do you good, Tweedledum, to hop round a bit on a lovely morning like this!"
"Hop round!" echoed the other. "Hop round!" He looked about him as if searching for a weapon. The dew, which everywhere had frozen during the night, was slowly thawing on the canvas covers of guns and searchlights, dripping from shrouds and yards and aerials.
"Lord alive!" continued the Watchkeeper. "Haven't I been hopping round this perishing quarterdeck since four a.m. keeping the Morning Watch? If Tweedledee doesn't come and relieve me soon I shall die of frostbite and boredom." The India-rubber Man was moving towards the hatchway. "And if you're going along to the bathroom, for pity's sake see there's some hot water left that I can sit and thaw in."
In the meanwhile the Midshipmen had descended to the cabin-flat where their chests occupied most of the available deck space. Flushed and breathless with exercise, the majority proceeded to divest themselves of their flannels and, girt with towels, made off for the bathroom. One, however, flung himself panting on to his chest, and sprawled partly across his own and partly on his neighbour's.
"I swear this is a bit thick!" he gasped. "I'm not used to this sort of frightfulness." He waved his legs in the air. "I shall get heart disease. Anguis pec—pec—— What's it called?"
"Peccavi," prompted his neighbour, slipping out of his clothes and donning a great-coat in lieu of a dressing-gown. "Otherwise 'The ruddy 'eart-burn.' Just move your greasy head off my till. I want to get at my razor."
"That's the worst of these 'new brooms'"—the victim of heart trouble surveyed his legs anxiously—"I know I've lost a couple of stone since this physical training fiend joined. I don't suppose my people will know me when I go home."
"Well, you aren't likely to be going home for some time to come," said another, a seraphic-faced nudity contemplating his biceps in the small looking-glass that adorned the inside of his chest, "so I shouldn't worry. I say, I'm sweating up a deuce of an arm on me. Shouldn't wonder if I pulled off the Grand Fleet Light-weights next month," he added modestly, "if this sort of thing goes on. I just mention it in case any of you are thinking of putting your names in." He turned from the glass, laughing. "Hullo, Mally, going to have a shave, old thing?"
"Yes, if I can get at my razor—— Oh, Bosh, get off my chest—sprawling all over my gear!"
"I'm in a state of acute physical exhaustion. I feel tender and giddy. I know all this foul exercise is bad for me early in the morning." The speaker sat up and juggled dexterously with a cake of soap, a sponge and a tooth-brush. "I'm getting rather good at this—— My word, look at Mally's shaving outfit. One would think he was a sort of Esau—'stead of only having to shave once a blooming week!"
"Are you going to shave, Mally?" queried a voice across the flat. "Because I'm not sure I shouldn't be better for a bit of a scrape myself. Can I have a rub at your razor after you?"
"You can have it after me if you swear not to skylark with it," replied the owner. "Only, last time I lent it to you, you shaved your beastly leg——"
"Only for practice," admitted the petitioner, advancing with a finger and thumb caressing his chin.
"Well it blunted it, anyhow. Come on, I'm going to the bathroom now."
The Gunroom bathroom was situated in another flat, reached via the aft-deck. Here about this hour an intermittent stream of figures in quaint neglige passed and repassed to their toilets. Inside the bathroom itself song and the splashing of water drowned all other sounds. The owner of the enlarged biceps was seated, fakir-wise, cross-legged in one of the shallow, circular baths in a corner, bailing water over himself from an empty cigarette tin.
"Harcourt, old thing," said the shaving enthusiast, who had filled a bath and dragged it alongside his friend, "did you mean what you said just now about the boxing show—are you going to put your name down for the Light-weights?"
The fakir stopped crooning a little song to himself and nodded. "Yes, I'm rather keen on it as a matter of fact. Standish saw me scrapping with Green the other night and sent for me afterwards and told me to get fit. I'm going to have a shot at it, I think. Wouldn't you?"
His friend tested the temperature of the water in his bath with his toe, and got in. "Yes, rather," he replied, and hesitated. "I'm going in for it too," he added.
Harcourt rose and reached for his towel. "Are you, Billy?" For a moment his eyes travelled over the other's slim form. "What a rag! We may draw each other—anyhow we shall have to scrap if we get into the semi-finals. Billy, I believe you'd bash me!" He towelled himself vigorously.
The other shook his head. "You beat me at Dartmouth. But I'm going to have a jolly good shot at it, cully!" He looked up with his face covered with soap-suds and they laughed into each others' eyes.
* * * * *
Breakfast in the Gunroom was, to employ a transatlantic colloquialism, some breakfast.
There was porridge to start with and then a bloater, followed by hashed mutton and cold ham ("for them as likes it," the Messman would say—which meant he pressed it on nobody) and marmalade: perhaps an apple or two to wind up with to the everlasting honour of the Vegetable Products Committee who supplied them gratis to the Fleet. Then pipes and cigarettes appeared from lockers, and the temporarily-closed flood-gates of conversation reopened. The Wireless Press Message was discussed and two experts in military strategy proceeded to demonstrate with the aid of two cruet-stands, a tea-spoon, and the Worcester Sauce, the precise condition of affairs on the Western Front. "Mark you," said one generously, "I'm not criticising either Haig or Joffre. But it seems to me that we should have pushed here"—and upset the Worcester Sauce.
This mishap to the Loos salient was in process of being righted when the door opened and a short, square-shouldered figure, with a wind-reddened face and eyes of a dark, dangerous blue, entered the mess. He came in stamping his feet and blowing on his hands, calling loudly for breakfast the while. "My, there's a good fug in here," he observed appreciatively, and proceeded to divest himself of a duffle coat, and a pair of night glasses which were slung round his neck in a leather case. He stumped across to the table, dragging his legs in heavy leather sea-boots rather wearily.
"Am I hungry?" he demanded, insinuating himself with some difficulty between the long form and the table, and sitting down. "Oh, no! Nothing to speak of. Cold? Not a bit: only frozen stiff. Any sleep last night? Rather! Nearly ten minutes. Porridge, please, and pass the brown sugar." The remainder of his messmates appeared disposed to return to strategical discussion. "Did we have any fun last night?" continued the speaker, raising his voice slightly. "Well, nothing to speak of. Only downed a Fritz."
"Downed one?" roared the Mess, galvanised suddenly into rapt interest in the new-comer and all his works.
"Yep. We were Outer Night Patrol last night. Me and Mouldy Jakes. He does make me smile, that official." A plateful of porridge proceeded to pass rapidly to its last resting place.
"He might have taken me," said one of the others wistfully. "You don't belong to his Division or his turret or anything."
"It was my turn. You went last time. But you missed something, I can tell you!"
"What d'you mean," said the Sub over the top of his paper. "Just cough up the details and let your beastly breakfast wait."
The Night Patroller extracted the backbone from a bloater with swift dexterity. "Well," he continued, "it was very dark last night and foggy in patches: rum night. Very little wind and no sea. We were right outside and the Engineer sent up to say he thought there was something foul of the propeller. So we stopped and investigated with a boathook. There was a lot of weed and stuff fouling us. We were playing about with it mit boathook for nearly a quarter-of-an-hour, and suddenly old Mouldy Jakes put up his head and sniffed about a bit and muttered 'Baccy.'"
"He's got a nose like a hawk," said the Midshipman of that officer's Division with a tinge of pride in his voice.
The Mess perforce had to possess its soul in patience while the raconteur swiftly disposed of the bloater.
"So I sniffed too, and I could smell it quite plain. We were lying stern to the wind; 'sides it wasn't decent baccy like ours, but sort of Scorp stuff, so we knew it wasn't one of our fellows smoking. Hashed mutton, please; and another cup of coffee. It was pitch dark and for a moment we couldn't see a thing. Then, suddenly, right on top of us came a submarine! She was on the surface and there was a fellow on the conning tower and a couple of figures aft. She must have been smelling about on the surface having a smoke and recharging her batteries."
The remainder of the Gunroom had crowded round the speaker, some kneeling on the form with their elbows among the debris of breakfast, others sat on the edge of the table hugging their knees.
"My word, Matt," said one, his eyes dancing, "I bet you got cold feet."
"Cold feet!" snorted the hero of the moment. "There wasn't time for cold feet. It was too sudden. They just grazed past us, going very slow, and there was a devil of a bobbery. I fancy they thought they were properly in the consomme. A trap or something. Anyhow the two braves aft lost their heads and jumped overboard, and the bird in the conning tower disappeared like a Jack-in-the-box—properly rattled."
"What price old Mouldy?" asked the listeners. "Utterly unmoved, I suppose! Lord, I'd love to have seen him!"
"Oh, bored stiff by the whole performance, of course. Still he did make one wild leap for the gun and got off a round at point-blank range. Hit her just below the conning tower. She must have been in diving trim, because she went down like a stone, bubbling like an empty soda-water bottle."
"What about the Huns in the water?" demanded the enthralled Clerk.
"We could only find one. The other must have got mixed up with the submarine's propeller. The one we picked up was nearly done and awfully surprised because we gave him dry clothes and hot drinks and a smoke, and didn't spit in his eye or anything of that sort. Said their officers always told them we illtreated our prisoners. Aren't they Nature's little Nobs?"
There was a little silence, each one busy with his own thoughts. Finally one broke the silence, voicing the opinion of the rest:
"Well," he ejaculated, "some people have all the blinking luck. I've done about twenty night patrols since I've been up here and never seen anything 'cept a porpoise."
The Night Patroller lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke with the air of a man who had earned it. "You were at Suvla Bay and the landing from the River Clyde," he retorted. "You can't have every ruddy thing in life."
* * * * *
A fine day in Ultima Thule—they were rare—was an occasion for thankfulness and rejoicing. Directly after luncheon the members of Gunroom and Wardroom made their way on deck to bask in the sun and smoke contemplative post-prandial pipes in the lee of the after superstructure. Forward, in amidships, the band was playing a slow waltz and fifty or so couples from among the ship's company were solemnly revolving to the music with expressions of melancholy enjoyment peculiar to such exercise.
"It's make-and-mend this afternoon," said the Senior Midshipman, tilting his cap over his eyes and lazily watching the antics of a gull volplaning against the light wind. He sat on the deck with his back against the superstructure and his hands clasped round his knees.
"It's a topping day, too," added Malison from his vantage astride the coir-hawser reel. "Too good to waste onboard. The footer ground's bagged—let's have a picnic in one of the cutters. Have tea ashore, an' fry bangers over a fire."
The project found favour generally. "We might ask one or two of the Wardroom," suggested Harcourt. "Some of the cheery ones; Standish and Thorogood and the Doc, say."
"And old Jakes," supplemented the Midshipman of that officer's Division jealously. "I'd like to ask him. He loves picnics."
Mouldy Jakes was included in the invitation list by general consent. His half-humorous, resigned air of chronic boredom had a peculiar attraction for all the Midshipmen; in the case of the Midshipman of his turret it amounted to idolatry.
"Go an' ask 'em, Harcourt," said the Senior Midshipman. "You're the Blue-eyed Boy with the Wardroom. I'll go and tackle the Commander for the cutter."
"Then Bosh and I will go and ginger-up the Messman," said another, "and get a basket packed. What shall we have for tea?"
"Sloe-gin," promptly responded a tall, pale Midshipman with a slightly freckled nose and sandy hair. "Sloe-gin and bangers. And get strawberry jam: see the Messman doesn't try and palm off any of his beastly gooseberry stuff like he did last time. What about bacon and eggs, and some tins of cocoa and milk, and a cake and some sardines——"
"Wonk," interrupted the caterer, "we're only going to have tea ashore. We aren't going to camp out for the week-end."
"I tell you what," said Mouldy Jake's patron, "I'll bring my line and we'll catch pollack and fry them for tea too."
"Well, I'm going to shift," said Malison, and the Committee of Supply broke up and passed down below.
Half an hour later the cutter, manned and provisioned, with the skiff in tow, hoisted her foresail and sheered off from the after gangway. The India-rubber Man, as Senior Officer of the expedition, took the helm and banished the Young Doctor into the bows, where, to judge by the ecstatic shouts of merriment that floated aft, his peculiar form of wit was much appreciated. Thorogood, at the main sheet, with an old deerstalker on his head and a pipe in his mouth, led the chorus in the sternsheets. Mouldy Jakes had usurped the skiff, and having satisfied himself that he was required to take no further part in the navigation of the expedition, made himself comfortable in the bottom of the boat and blinked at the sky through puffs of smoke from his pipe.
He was followed into this voluntary exile by the Midshipman of his Division, one Morton, who sat in the bows contemplating him affectionately.
Precisely what it was that inspired this apparently one-sided attachment was never very apparent. The almost passionate loyalty and affections of youth are hardy plants, thriving abundantly on the scantiest soil.
For a while only the drowsy swish of the water past the bottom of the boat, and snatches of merriment or song drifting aft from the cutter, broke the silence in the skiff. Then Mouldy Jakes's companion apparently tired of this silent communion.
"Sir," he said, "would you like to fish?"
"No," said Mouldy Jakes.
His host proceeded to unwind his line. "Do you mind if I do?" he enquired.
"No," was the reply.
The Midshipman watched his line in silence for a little while. "Do you think you sank that submarine last night?" he asked presently.
Mouldy Jakes closed his eyes and gave a grunt with an affirmative intonation.
"It must have been a topping show. Weren't you awfully bucked, sir?"
"I suppose you didn't get a wink of sleep all night?"
A vague confirmatory noise.
"You must be jolly tired, sir. Wouldn't you like to sleep a bit now, sir?"
"Right ho, sir. You can carry on and have a jolly good caulk. I'm going to fish, and I'll call you when we get to the island where we're going to land.... Is your head quite comfortable?"
Silence reigned in the skiff.
The cutter had passed beyond the outskirts of the Fleet, and the decorum required of the occupants of a Service boat in such surroundings no longer ruled their behaviour. They sang and shouted for sheer joy of bellowing, full-lunged, across the untrammelled water. No one whose life is not spent in the narrow confines of a man-of-war, walking paths sternly ruled by Naval Discipline, can realise the intoxicating effect of such an emancipation. The mysterious workings of the Midshipman-mind found full play on these occasions, as they tumbled about in the bottom of the boat in the unfettered enjoyment of a whole-hearted "scrap." If you have ever seen young foxes at play, buffeting each other, yelping with simulated anguish, nuzzling endearments half savage and half in play, you have an idea of the bottom of a cutter full of Midshipmen proceeding on a picnic. It was an embodiment of youth triumphant, shouting with laughter at the Jest of Life.